As part of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that he inherited from his predecessor, President Donald Trump yesterday was forced to decide whether to renew the U.S. waiver on sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports. Rather than violate the JCPOA and risk an early diplomatic crisis, the president — who has dubbed the nuclear deal the “worst” in history — swallowed hard and waived.
But before the narrative takes hold that — despite all Trump’s huffing and puffing — he’s simply following in the footsteps of the Obama administration’s Iran policy, a few pertinent observations:
At the same time that he was green-lighting another 120 days of Iranian oil exports, Trump made a point of slapping new sanctions on four entities and three individuals connected to Iran’s ballistic-missile program. The administration also purposefully accelerated the release of its human rights report on Iran, highlighting the regime’s systematic abuse of its own citizens, including its outrageous imprisonment of innocent U.S. dual nationals.
The clear message: While holding its nose to grapple with the detritus of Obama’s nuclear deal, the Trump team won’t hesitate to punch the mullahs in their collective schnoz. Obama seemed paralyzed from taking action to counter Iran’s malign activities for fear of jeopardizing the JCPOA. So long as the Iranians didn’t cheat too egregiously on their nuclear commitments, they had a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card for their broader assault on U.S. interests — from aiding and abetting mass murder in Syria to the development of long-range ballistic missiles. With Wednesday’s designations and the damning human rights report, the administration is signaling that the days of U.S. self-deterrence with respect to Iran are numbered.
The administration is in the middle of a major Iran policy review. Taking dramatic steps with respect to the JCPOA without having a broader strategy in place to combat the Iranian threat would have made little sense. From that perspective, yesterday’s actions on missiles and human rights, are best viewed as a placeholder of sorts, a down-payment on what is highly likely to be a much tougher policy by the administration to roll back Iranian aggression by unsheathing the full complement of diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence tools in the U.S. arsenal. Watch this space.
Limited as yesterday’s punitive action was, it came just two days before Iran’s presidential elections. That suggests that the defense of American interests against the mullahs will no longer be pegged to the twists and turns of the Islamic Republic’s internal politics. No more misguided efforts to modulate U.S. policy to strengthen some band of faux “moderates” over the dreaded hardliners. There is the theocratic regime and those seeking to salvage it from history’s dustbin, and there are the Iranian people. That is the only split that should matter to U.S. policymakers. The administration’s decision to slap the Islamic Republic on the eve of Friday’s vote is an indication that it appreciates that fundamental fact. That’s potentially a very important shift.
Of course, none of this comes in a vacuum. Putting Iran “on notice.” Cruise missile strikes and nearly 300 new designations against the Assad regime. The revitalization of U.S. alliances with Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Next week’s presidential trip to the Middle East with the not-so-hidden purpose of mobilizing an anti-Iran coalition. As they say, you don’t need to be a weatherman to figure out which way the wind is blowing on Iran policy in the age of Trump. Yesterday’s waiver renewal should be cold comfort for the mullahs.
John Hannah is senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.